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NARLYR: Conceptual blending of spatial schemas with emotion

See the European Comission's publication NARLYR Results in Brief: The Emotional Secrets of Poetry

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The Narrative Lyric: Conceptual Blending of Spatial Schemata with Emotion in Poetry and Beyond (NARLYR) was a research and training project funded by a three-year Marie Curie International Outgoing Fellowship for career development from the European Commission, the Government of the European Union. The fellow was Cristóbal Pagán Cánovas. The scientist in charge in the US was Professor Mark Turner. The scientist in charge in the EU was Professor Javier Valenzuela Manzanares.

NARLYR received a 98% evaluation in the 2008 call of the Marie Curie IOF, and was selected alongside other sixteen proposals in the humanities and the social sciences from all over Europe. NARLYR has received funding for a three-year, full-time research position at a European host institution, the University of Murcia, Spain, with salary, benefits, and research and travel allowance at the level of an assistant professor (US) or lecturer (UK), with a total budget of 225000€.

From September 2009 to August 2011, the NARLYR fellow, Cristóbal Pagán Cánovas, worked at the Cognitive Science Department of the University of California San Diegokindly sponsored by Professor Seana Coulson's Cognitive Semantics Working Group, and at Case Western Reserve University's Department of Cognitive Science, the main host of the project. From September 2011 to August 2012, NARLYR’s return phase is hosted by the University of Murcia's Greek Literature and Language, Cognition and Translation research groups. During the two months prior to the project, the fellow was a visiting scholar at the Linguistics Department of the University of California Berkeley, where he also attended the LSA 2009. In the last two months of the project, July-August 2012, the fellow will be hosted by the ERC research group The Social and Cultural Construction of Emotions: The Greek Paradigm (Angelos Chaniotis, ERC Advanced Grant), at the Classics Faculty of the University of Oxford.


is a research project on the poetics of emotion in Greek, Spanish, English, and other literatures. It investigates abstract conceptual patterns that recur across seemingly disparate examples of verbal art: metaphors, metonymies, complex symbols, etc. In all these cases the language is aimed at expressing affective meaning, the typical function of the lyric.

        This imagery conveying emotion makes extensive use of skeletal spatial stories that are basic to human cognition from early development (image schemas). By blending these schemas with typical scenes, most of them also involving spatial interaction, verbal figuration prompts us to construct new, emergent meanings that are loaded with intentionality and affect. Texts extremely distant from our cultural background, or showing a very complex semantic structure, can be processed and understood in a matter of seconds. Both poet and audience are relying on shared cognitive habits to make sense of what often looks absurd or pointless from a logical, formal, or compositional point of view.

        NARLYR identifies some of these blends and compares their use across different literatures and periods. By coming up with a story, these poetic images fulfill one of the major goals of conceptual integration, which ultimately aims at putting at human scale what is scattered and diffuse in experience, like emotions. It is also impressive to find that extremely basic spatial schemas, which we keep using everyday, can recur not only in conventional language, but also in numerous examples of creative metaphors that only seemed vaguely connected.

        For instance, a schema with an emitter throwing, pouring, irradiating, etc. something towards a receiver, and causing an expected consequence, is systematically integrated with situations containing a scene of erotic response. In the blend, we can have spectacular, impossible products: a human body emitting light, a god shooting an arrow, a wind shaking our minds... In all cases this emission is what causes the lover to fall in love. One of the most complex human experiences, for which our logic is often unable to produce a causative chain, is thus conceptualized by means of a schema of spatial interaction that we had interiorized as infants.

        Such generic integration networks are varied, sometimes intricate, and nonetheless extremely productive. They recur time and again in the most creative language of emotions. Poets, in their search for excellence and originality, do not seem to make the slightest effort to avoid their use. These structures operate in backstage cognition, and provide us with templates that we can all share and manipulate. They are patterns of thought that become instantiated in very different ways, under the influence of context, culture, individual creativity and rhetoric goals. As cognitive habits, they play a key role in the quick processing of sophisticated, novel poetic images, even in cases in which the reader could fail to make other relevant connections. Their new, emergent meanings often expose the social norms for the expression of affect, either by being creative within them or by departing from them. They also show that spatial interaction, configured as sequences of events, is crucial for expression and thought, and very specially for the conceptualization of emotions. These patterns repeatedly link poetry to story, perceptual analysis, and spatial cognition. They make the lyric much more narrative than we tend to think.

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Research lines

Erotic Emissions in comparative literature.

This generic network, which blends an emission schema with a "falling in love" scene, has been observed in ancient Greek lyric from the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods, in oral folksongs of Medieval origin, and in twentieth century poets such as Giannis Ritsos or Odysseas Elytis. A comparative literature study including several other European traditions is in progress. The conceptual pattern shows systematic interactions with context, giving rise to a limited repertoire of speech acts. There are also further constraints depending on the instantiation of the schema: light irradiation, wind, sound, odour, etc.

The arrows of love.

The arrows of love are probably the most successful case of the erotic emission pattern. They are also one of the most popular of all symbols inherited from classical Antiquity. But when and how were the arrows of love created? In a forthcoming article I make the case for a cultural process of conceptual integration, rather than the individual invention that has been argued by philologists, or a connection to everyday metaphors, suggested in cognitive linguistics. I propose that the emission pattern was blended with an Abstract Cause Personification network. I explain the emergence of Love the archer in Antiquity through conceptual integration from earlier materials: Apollo the Archer personifying death, erotic emissions in lyric imagery, the link between passion and extreme illness, and possibly the arrows of glance.

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